August’s Psalm of the Month: 77

The eighth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

"I will walk in the strength of the LORD God"

Forever will the Lord reject
And never show His grace?
Has He withdrawn His steadfast love
And turned from me His face?

While lines like “O God, most holy are Your ways” may call to mind the blue Psalter Hymnal’s settings of Psalm 77 (#145-147), the version of this psalm that appears in the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal is much more recent, originating in the 2003 Scottish psalter Sing Psalms. The deep pain and earnest questioning of Psalm 77 are reinforced by the plaintive tune RESIGNATION, a traditional American folk melody harmonized here by Dale Grotenhuis. Although it does not appear in either the blue Psalter Hymnal or the revised Trinity Hymnal, the tune may be somewhat familiar in connection with Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.”

As you sing Psalm 77, notice how the inflection of the text coincides with the rise and fall of the musical line. Special attention should be given to the climax of the psalm in the middle of the third stanza: “Forever has his promise failed? Is God no longer kind?” In contrast, note the quiet assurance that accompanies the affirmations of God’s loving acts in stanzas 6 and 7, and share in the psalmist’s journey from crisis to comfort.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 8/2: stanzas 1-3
  • 8/9: stanzas 3-5
  • 8/16: stanzas 5,6
  • 8/23: stanzas 6,7
  • 8/30: all

Source: Psalm 77 in Sing Psalms

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 77

  • Remembering and moaning (vv. 1-3)
  • Remembering and doubting (vv. 4-9)
  • Remembering and searching (vv. 10-12)
  • Remembering and resting (vv. 13-20)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 77

Especially in the 400 “silent years” between the last Old Testament prophecies and the birth of Jesus, the Jews could well wonder whether God’s promises to Israel were “at an end for all time” (v. 8). With rampant idolatry and harsh persecution pressing in, believers would have seen a stark contrast between his “wonders of old” for them (v. 11) and his current silence. Jesus’ birth was the first “good news” (Luke 2:10) to God’s people after this time of dispersion and affliction. And what good news it was: the same Christ who led his people like a flock in the hands of Moses and Aaron (v. 20) would himself come as the Good Shepherd, from whose hand no sheep can be snatched (John 10).

Applying Psalm 77

  • Why did the psalmist moan when he remembered God (v. 3)?
  • Have you ever doubted whether God’s promises still apply to you (v. 8)?
  • Where does the psalmist turn for comfort (vv. 10,11)? How can you obtain the same comfort?
  • How do the terrifying events of vv. 16-19 reveal God’s steadfast love?
  • Why does Psalm 77 end so suddenly (v. 20)? How does this closing statement summarize the psalmist’s comfort?

The psalmist continued to set God before his view, wisely supporting his faith by the reflection that God, who never changes his love or his nature, can do nothing but in due time show mercy to his servants. Let us also learn to open our eyes to behold the works of God. They may seem insignificant by reason of the dimness of our eyes and the inadequacy of our perception, but if we examine them attentively, they will ravish us with admiration.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 77:12

 

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 5)

Eenige Gezangen

As I mentioned last week, much of the case for hymn-singing in the Christian Reformed Church was built on the claim that Reformed churches had never been opposed to hymn-singing on principle. The Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 commented:

[T]he introduction of Hymns for use in Public Worship was sanctioned already by our Reformed Fathers of the 16th century. For they have provided the Churches with the still existing small collection which is found in our Dutch Psalters, bearing the title ‘Eenige Gezangen,’ and from this it follows that the Hymn question cannot be a question of introducing Hymns, but only of an increase of the number that has been in use already for centuries.

–from “Report on the Hymn Question”, p. 8

I didn’t want to challenge the creators of the Psalter Hymnal on this point, but I couldn’t help feeling that this statement conflicted with my memory of Reformed church history. Was the committee’s argumentation historically fair? For an answer I turned to Biesterveld and Kuyper’s Kerkelijk Handboekje, translated by Richard De Ridder, which lists the following decisions of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands on what may be sung in worship:

  • “As for singing in the church, the use of the psalms as rendered by Petrus Datheen shall be maintained in all the Dutch churches so that nothing less fitting and less edifying is introduced because of the variety of versions” (Articles of Wesel, 1568, Chapter II, Par. 31).
  • “With respect to the question whether it is beneficial in addition to the Psalms of David set to poetry by Dathenus to make use of certain other spiritual songs and psalms of other scholarly persons in the [worship] of the church, the brothers decided that only the Psalms set into poetry by Dathenus shall be used, in addition to the other songs accompanying these, until this shall be differently decided by a General Synod” (Church Order of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, Art. XLIII).
  • “The Psalms of David translated by Pieter Datheen shall be sung in the Christian gatherings of the Netherlands churches as has been done until now, excluding the hymns which are not found in the Bible” (Acts of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, Chapter IV, Art. XXIV).
  • “Only the Psalms of David shall be sung in the churches, omitting the hymns which are not found in the Scriptures” (Church Order of General Synod of Middelburg, 1581, Art. LI).
  • “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the twelve articles of faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon shall be sung. Whether or not to use the hymn, ‘O God who art our Father,’ etc. is left to the freedom of the churches. All other hymns shall be kept out of the churches, and where some have already been introduced, they shall be discontinued by the most appropriate means” (Post-Acta of the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1619, Session 162).

Much as I’d like to agree with the Psalter Hymnal Committee, reading these synodical stipulations leads me to a very different conclusion. Our Reformed forefathers were anything but enthusiastic about hymn-singing in public worship. In fact, they took a definite stand against “hymns which are not found in the Scriptures.” The Synod of Dort went so far as to declare that all hymns besides the “Eenige Gezangen” “shall be kept out of the churches,” and hymns currently being sung “shall be discontinued by the most appropriate means.” Their position was anything but wishy-washy!

But, I wondered, what about that “Eenige Gezangen” collection mentioned by the Psalter Hymnal Committee? What sort of hymns are included in there? To answer this question I got my hands on an old Dutch Psalter and looked in the back. These are the contents of the “Eenige Gezangen” (literally, “Some Songs”) included in the 1773 translation of the Psalter:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • The Song of Mary
  • The Song of Zechariah
  • The Song of Simeon
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Twelve Articles of Faith (Apostles’ Creed), in two different versions
  • Prayer before the Sermon (This is the hymn “O God, who art our Father,” referenced above.)
  • Morning Song
  • Prayer before Eating
  • Thanksgiving after Eating
  • Evening Song

Now let me break down this list a little bit. The first five songs are taken directly from Scripture, leaving only six that could be classified as “uninspired.” I have to do more research, but I strongly suspect that the morning and evening songs, and the songs before and after eating, were intended for private devotions rather than public worship. Of the six uninspired songs in this list, the Church Order of Dort only sanctions the Apostles’ Creed and the prayer before the sermon. The “Morgenzang” even mentions going out to the day’s labors, which would make it a strange selection for the Lord’s Day.*

This leaves us with only two songs that are not taken from the text of Scripture and are definitely sanctioned for use in public worship. But neither the Apostles’ Creed nor the prayer before the sermon are “hymns” in the modern American sense of the word. Rather, they are standard parts of the weekly liturgy, just set to music rather than recited. Instead of speaking the Apostles’ Creed, the church would sing it. Rather than hearing a prayer before the sermon, the church would sing it. This presents a fascinating picture of congregational participation in a Reformed worship service. It’s also substantially different than singing “Blessed Assurance” in the middle of Sunday worship—and substantially different than the kind of hymn-singing the Psalter Hymnal Committee was trying to justify in 1930.

What’s the point here? As I’ve emphasized before, I’m trying to restrict this series to a historical look at the creation of the first Psalter Hymnal, to see what light it can shed on the URCNA’s current Psalter Hymnal project. I haven’t even included Biblical prooftexts or theological arguments for or against psalm-singing in this post. Yet from a purely historical viewpoint, I still come away from this study disturbed—disturbed at the haste and apparent unconcern with which we supplanted the Psalter with a collection of uninspired, manmade hymns. If we decide to alter a tradition rooted in Scripture, sustained through millennia of church practice, and reinforced unequivocally by our Reformed forefathers, we had better be dead sure we are right.

–MRK

* It’s worth noting that the CRC’s Church Order allowed for the singing of the Morning and Evening Songs in worship by 1928. When did this change come about? I need to do more research to answer that question, too.

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 4)

Hymnal Line-Up

Last week’s discussion of the creation of the CRC’s first Psalter Hymnal brought us to the Synod of 1928, the meeting at which the question of singing hymns in worship came to a head.

In Dutch Reformed church government, items before the synod must first go through an “advisory” or “pre-advisory” committee which examines each communication and formulates a concise recommendation based on it. All of the overtures related to hymn-singing, including the one in favor from Classis Grand Rapids East and the one against from Classis Zeeland, were assigned to the Committee for Preadvice on Liturgical Matters. This committee brought to the synod a recommendation to adopt the overture of Classis Grand Rapids East in its entirety, change the Church Order, and appoint a committee to prepare a suitable set of hymns.

This was a significant step. In effect, the pre-advisory committee was urging synod to unequivocally and immediately declare that hymns could be sung in worship. Their recommendation had an air of haste about it, too: “Our people are using hymns. Our churches in some localities sing hymns in song services held immediately before the public worship. The demand for hymns has gained great momentum. Your Committee feels that Synod should exercise a guiding hand before this demand can no longer be controlled.”

Also, the committee commented, “The Synod no longer needs to appoint a committee for study, but can enter upon the matter at once” by simply adopting the Grand Rapids East overture—yes, that’s right, the same overture whose reasoning made me so uneasy back here. Anticipating opposition, they responded point-by-point (though not very thoroughly) to Classis Zeeland’s objections.

What came next was “a lengthy discussion of this matter” on the floor of synod, which hasn’t been preserved for us in the minutes. In the end, the committee’s motion was replaced with a substitute motion that took things a little more slowly, but still declared unequivocally that hymns were acceptable for worship:

Although the Synod does, from the point of view of principle, not object to the introduction of hymns into our public worship, nevertheless the Synod, because of objections which are of a practical or of a historical nature, and which have been expressed on the floor of Synod, decides:

(1) To appoint a Committee which shall: (a) Study this matter thoroughly from every point of view; and (b) Investigate whether or not a sufficient number of hymns suitable for our public worship is obtainable.

(2) To further instruct this Committee that should a sufficient number of suitable hymns be found, the Committee shall not only submit the same to the Synod of 1930, but shall also publish its report six months in advance of that Synod, together with the text of the hymns which the Committee deems suitable.

–Acts of Synod 1928, Article 57, pp. 46-48 (available here)

Again, we don’t know exactly where individual Christian Reformed congregations stood on the question of hymn-singing or what debates took place on the floor of Synod. But to me it still seems like a strange decision to immediately affirm the suitability of hymns for worship, yet appoint a committee to “study this matter thoroughly from every point of view” anyway, and in such a short timeframe. It’s taken the URC more than fifteen years to finish compiling a Psalter Hymnal (under different circumstances, to be sure), but the CRC expected their committee to gather a hymn section from scratch in a year and a half. Such a rush doesn’t seem to do justice to the weightiness of the question under consideration.

Nevertheless, the “Committee on the Question of Hymn Singing” accomplished its task honorably, and reported to the Synod of 1930 with a hefty 133-page booklet containing (a) a response to the arguments made at Synod 1928 and an argument for the practice of hymn-singing; (b) the texts of 197 hymns; and (c) a list of revisions made to the hymns for doctrinal or poetical reasons. That booklet is available from Calvin’s Hekman Library here.

Before we delve too far into the “Report on the Hymn Question,” however, there’s one argument that pops up repeatedly in the overture from Grand Rapids East, the decision of the Synod of 1928, and the opening remarks of the Hymn Committee. It’s an historical argument, and it runs like this: The Reformed churches could have never opposed hymns in worship on principle, since the Dutch Psalter always contained a small section of hymns (“Eenige Gezangen”) since the 1500’s. The “Eenige Gezangen” are mentioned at least nine times in the “Report on the Hymn Question.” What were these songs? Were they the same as our definition of “hymns”? How were they used in worship? Stay tuned for next week’s installment.

–MRK

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 3)

Here on URC Psalmody we’ve been spending some time considering why and how the first Psalter Hymnal came into existence more than 80 years ago. As we’ve already seen, the first impetus for the project came from several overtures on the question of hymn-singing to Synod 1928 of the Christian Reformed Church. If Classis Grand Rapids East was the primary voice arguing for hymns, Classis Zeeland was the strongest in arguing against them. You can read the entire overture here; it’s the eighth in the list. (I’ve provided a rough translation I worked out with the help of Google Translate, but if any Dutch-speaking readers would care to submit a better version, I’d be very appreciative!)

Classis Zeeland urged synod to declare uit dat het niet wenschelijk is gezangen in onzen openbaren eeredienst in te voeren—more or less, “that it is advisable not to introduce hymns into our public worship.” When I first read this, I expected them to back up their position with some of the standard exclusive-psalmody arguments against hymns: that they are not commanded in Scripture, that they are unnecessary additions to worship, etc. But whether or not they would agree with these points, Classis Zeeland left them out, giving six other grounds for their position.

  1. Historically, the introduction of hymns tends to crowd out or even exclude the psalms from worship. Both “cold facts” and personal experience back this statement up. Where hymns are used, the frequency and vibrancy of psalm-singing often fades. Eventually, the psalms become a lonely minority amidst a broad collection of music. Even for us in the URCNA, isn’t it often true that the last third of the blue Psalter Hymnal contains the songs we know the best?
  2. Hymns speak about the life of God’s people, but the psalms speak out of the spiritual life. I think this point is clearer in Dutch, having something do with the difference between the prepositions over and uit. The classis could be talking about the fact that psalms are divinely inspired, i.e. they speak “out of the Spirit’s life,” or they might be emphasizing that the psalms are suitable for every experience of the human “spiritual life.” In any case, the point is that the faith expressed in many hymns is shallow and sentimental compared to the all-encompassing range of the psalms.
  3. Even though metrical versions of the psalms are not themselves inspired, they are still based on the inspired Word of God in a way that hymns are not. Technically, metrical versions of the psalms are no more divinely inspired than hymns. However, rhymed versions of psalm texts are still rooted in and guarded by the inspired Word of God, while with hymns, “Anything goes!” Psalm-singing helps to safeguard our worship against unbiblical teachings and themes.
  4. Many English hymns are “leavened with Arminianism” (doorzuurd met het Arminianisme). Hymns have an incredible power to spread false doctrine. To be sure, many uninspired songs are thoroughly Biblical, even staunchly Reformed, and some of the best have made it into our current Psalter Hymnal. But even in the beloved blue book, there are songs I cringe to sing. On the other hand, it’s very hard to imagine an “Arminian psalm setting,” as long as the translation and versification have been done faithfully.
  5. If the current metrical psalter fails to shed enough New Testament light on the Psalms, the remedy is not hymn-singing but better versification. Now, the classis could mean one of two things here: that the psalms should be “recast” in New Testament language (à la Isaac Watts), or that faithful translations of the psalms will automatically allow New Testament light to fall on them. For my part, I think the second of these possibilities better honors the Word of God and edifies the church. While the psalms need to be explained and connected to Christian living today—and there are many opportunities for this during the worship service—I don’t believe we can only sing psalms after they’ve been “translated” into “New Testament language.” It is the same voice of the same God speaking to us.
  6. The introduction of hymn-singing would cause unrest in the churches. To be fair, there would continue to be unrest in the CRC on this issue whether or not hymn-singing was approved. But Classis Zeeland seems to have in mind the principle the apostle Paul emphasized to the Corinthians: Even if all things are lawful for the Christian, “not all things are helpful” (I Cor. 6:12). To suddenly change a significant element of the worship service—and one that had remained basically unchanged for more than three centuries prior—would necessarily cause turmoil and upheaval in the church.

How does Classis Zeeland’s overture apply to the church today? In the URCNA and the OPC, our position is significantly different than the CRC’s in 1928. Hymn-singing is a longstanding practice in our churches. The question the new Psalter Hymnal will force us to consider is not whether to sing hymns, but how to define the ongoing relationship between psalms and hymns in our worship.

At the same time, though, several of Classis Zeeland’s warnings still apply very much today: the crowding out of psalm-singing, the stunting of Christians’ spiritual expression, and the spreading of false doctrine. Thankfully, there’s a simple answer we can apply right here and right now: Sing more psalms. This is the most effective way to guard against the dangers mentioned above—and along the way, our spiritual lives, both as individuals and as a church, will be strengthened.

–MRK

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 2)

Psalms vs. HymnsIn my last post I mentioned the first major artifact in the long story of the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnals, leading up to the one the URC uses today and the one it hopes to produce in the future. That document is the “Report on the Hymn Question” submitted by the first Psalter Hymnal Committee to the 1930 synod of the CRC.

While the “Report on the Hymn Question” contains the first formal justification and discussion of the reasons for a Psalter Hymnal, it was not the first step in the journey towards a hybrid psalm- and hymn-book. That first step began with an overture from Classis Grand Rapids East in 1928.

Before 1928, as the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal notes, the Christian Reformed Church sang “practically nothing but Psalms in public worship.” This was an easy tradition to justify as long as CRC congregations worshiped in Dutch and sang from Dutch psalters. As churches (and especially young church members) began to transition to worship in the English language, however, the matter became stickier. Hymns began to be used “in religious gatherings outside of public worship,” and pressure mounted to incorporate more hymns into worship than the dozen or so standard offerings included in the back of the Dutch psalters.

Up until that time the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, handed down from the Synod of Dort itself, contained this instruction regarding congregational singing:

In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung. (Article 69)

In 1928 came the first definitive call for action, as the CRC’s synod faced overtures from three of its fifteen classes arguing for the inclusion of hymns, two classes and a consistory arguing against the inclusion of hymns, and four classes requesting the appointment of a committee to study the matter further. Among these overtures, two stand out as the longest and most thorough: the one from Classis Grand Rapids East in favor of hymns, and the one from Classis Zeeland against hymns. I’ve transcribed the text of the GR East overture and done a little bit of the translation work here. The Zeeland overture is among the additional communications posted here.

I encourage you to read through Classis Grand Rapids East’s overture yourself and examine their reasoning. If I had to summarize their arguments, it would be as follows: Hymns should be incorporated into worship because (1) the singing of hymns is not forbidden in Scripture, and (2) there is a need for hymns in the churches. The classis’s additional points are qualifiers: i.e. that hymns must be doctrinally sound and must not dominate the church’s worship.

While I’m not here to argue against using hymns in worship, some of the particulars of Classis Grand Rapids East’s reasoning trouble me.

First, the classis all but ignores the regulative principle of worship (what is not commanded is forbidden), which we’ve discussed elsewhere on URC Psalmody. They argue for the inclusion of hymns by calling into question any biblical command for psalms or hymns in worship. In regard to Paul’s exhortations to the Ephesians and Colossians to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” they claim to have “no definite certainty whether these passages refer to our singing in public worship.” (Yet they later seem quite sure that I Timothy 3:16 quotes a “well-known hymn of praise” in the early church.) “Nor is the singing of spiritual songs or hymns expressly forbidden in God’s Word,” the classis adds, falling back on the normative principle of worship for justification (what is not forbidden is permissible).

This alarms me. If we are to sing hymns in worship, we should possess at least a fair amount of certainty that God has commanded their use. The classis seems to lack that conviction, yet continues their case for hymn-singing unconcerned.

Second, the classis argues for hymn-singing by attempting to point out insufficiencies in the psalms: that they fail to reflect the “clearer revelation” and “fulfillment” of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the Trinity is a poorly chosen example. Indeed, the Book of Psalms contains some of the clearest indications of the Trinity in the entire Old Testament, if not all of Scripture. Think of Psalm 2: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Or Psalm 104: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” Or Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Indeed, the fact that so many of the psalms “employ the past tense, the tense of fulfillment,” seems to prove the lasting value of the Psalter rather than an inherent need for New Testament-inspired hymns. The psalms come with the light of fulfillment built in!

Again, valid arguments can be made for the inclusion of uninspired hymns alongside psalms in worship, songs that reflect the message of the whole Bible. But we must not base those arguments for hymns on failings in the psalms. If we confess that God gave us the psalms to use in worship, we cannot also claim that they are insufficient for the church’s needs. We cannot affirm the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Old Testament while also dismissing it as somehow sub-Christian.

Finally, the classis defends the need for hymns by mentioning their “directness” and “heart-appeal” that speak to the “younger generation,” whereas understanding the psalms requires “a rather extensive exegesis.” (Don’t these terms call to mind more recent arguments for praise choruses?) This is not only a ridiculous misrepresentation—which is more direct and heartfelt, the sappy “I Surrender All” or the raw emotions of Psalm 130?—but it also utterly neglects the role of the psalms as a teaching tool. In fact, many psalms address the “younger generation” directly: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD” (Psalm 34:11); “We will not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4). Hymns are constrained by time, place, and cultural context; the psalms are for every generation.

Readers, what do you think? Are there particular areas in which you agree or disagree with Classis Grand Rapids East’s case for hymn-singing? Do you think this makes an adequate case for hymn-singing in the churches? How would you structure an argument for a Psalter Hymnal?

Next time, Lord willing, we’ll delve into the overture against hymn-singing from Classis Zeeland.

–MRK


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